Category Archives: PhD Work

Submitting the PhD thesis

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[NOTE: Having returned to the blog after a long hiatus, I found some quirks in the blog theme I had been using. We will probably be trying a few other designs over the next couple of weeks, so please forgive the aesthetic shifts!]

 

On 15 August I handed over a 105,328-word document to someone behind a welcome desk in Durham University’s Palatine Centre. It was a rather unceremonious act  in form.

Not in reality. And the good folks at Flat White Coffee supplied a memorable scene that was ceremonious enough (note the “receipt” of my submission next to the espresso drink).

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As my wife pointed out—with a bound copy of the PhD thesis sitting between us on the dining table—that PDF is the most expensive thing we own… at least in a sense. Our lives have been hinged to the conviction that my vocational service to the church includes an academic slant. Multiple moves and costly degree programs have defined our past decade… along with the adventure of rearing 4 precious children amidst the pressures.

A “viva”(oral exam) still awaits. And yes, I am nervous about it. But for now, a few brief thoughts…

The Bio of the Book

I will post more on the topic and arguments of the thesis later. For fun, though I would just like to point out that 17 years ago I was sitting at a desk in the O’Callaghan house reading John’s Gospel and noticing a few threads that seemed worthy of further exploration.

14 years ago I started checking out PhD programs from the computer lab at Beeson Divinity School.

8 years ago I made my first (of two) exploratory trips to Durham.

And then a few weeks ago I turned in my third “book.” (Thanks for indulging the historical sketch).

 

A PhD is often a Pyrrhic Victory

I wrote once here at HR that the Christian vocation can often feel like a Pyrrhic victory. This is from that earlier post :

Pyrrhus was a Greek king who soldiered valiantly into the might and muscle of Rome in the 2nd century BC. After a brutalizing series of particular engagements, the battle dust began to settle and someone gave him the news that he was the victor.

Pyrrhus did not feel very victorious.

In fact, he felt messed up, broken down, and demoralized. To gain this “victory” he had sustained massive losses. Though most of the 15,000 corpses lying across the outskirts of Asculum belonged to the Romans, the Greek body count was grievously high (and the Romans had been much better resourced).

A Pyrrhic victory is one in which the gains are roughly commensurate with the losses. From the annals:

“Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders….” (see here for Plutarch’s biographical sketch).

I have been a bit of a drama queen over the difficulties of pursuing the PhD. (Please forgive me). But to be absolutely clear: it is miserably hard (though the academic stuff was often less difficult than the circumstantial).

A “Victory,” Nonetheless…

Though a keen sense of the sacrifice in writing that these certainly accompanies its submission, I am delighted to report that over the following days it gradually occurred to me that breathing was a bit easier (figuratively), as if I had been sucking in air for years with a boulder on my chest only recently lifted. The increased oxygen supply has been wonderful. Unburdened by the thesis, my lungs have been able to expand a bit.

And next…

Amidst sleeping a bit extra and reading fiction mostly guilt-free, I am now in quest for a job. And the viva looms nearer each day, for which I feel I must have John’s Gospel memorized in the Greek, along with all the writings of Alexandrian theologians in the first few centuries of the church. These scholarly endeavors are impossible feats, of course (at least for me).

But overall I am pleased to report a general sense of relief, and possibly an increased degree of sanity.

I feel almost 105,328 words lighter.

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St. Gregory the Great and the Pastor-Theologian | “The care of souls is the art of arts”

I was scanning the patristics section in my college library when I found this:

Gregory the Great (540–604) was one of the most influential popes in the history of the church. One of his legacies is The Book of Pastoral Rule (henceforth, “PR” [1]).

Pastoring is an ancient craft, one Gregory calls (borrowing from Gregory Nazianzus [2]) “the art of arts.” I grabbed the book off the shelf for holiday reading material.

What intrigued me is the pastoral crisis Gregory was writing into. As the translator George Demacopoulos explains in his introduction to PR, an interesting phenomenon took place after Constantine’s conversion. As the Roman populace suddenly began flooding into the church en masse, many Christians believed the collective spiritual maturity became increasingly more shallow. Living out the faith seemed more authentic back in the pre-Constantine days, when being a Christian was less popular and even socially quite challenging. So many of the more ‘serious’ Christians made an exodus from the congregations of the masses to join monastic communities and embrace a more ascetic life.

Gregory, however, was calling these ascetics back to the churches to become pastors.

Well… not necessarily all of them. He highly valued asceticism and the monastic life; yet he knew that many Christians gifted for pastoral ministry were fleeing the parish to the monastery, so to speak.

What St. Gregory had found in his own life and throughout the wider body of Christ is that the attraction of a more spiritual and studious life can actually deplete the church of her best guides and pastors.

This temptation is very real today. For some of us, the academic life seems to afford a contemplative vocation of rigorous theological and biblical study. Oddly, a love for God’s words can actually become the means by which gifted ministers leave the parish and the pulpit. (Though let us note that many an academic will say that such a contemplative existence is a gross illusion!).

I leave you with the challenge of St. Gregory’s own words:

For there are several who possess incredible virtues and who are exalted by great talents for training others; men who are spotless in the pursuit of chastity, stout in the vigor of fasting, satiated in the feasts of doctrine, humble in the long-suffering of patience, erect in the fortitude of authority, tender in the grace of kindness, and strict in the severity of judgment. To be certain, if they refuse to accept a position of spiritual leadership when they are called, they forfeit the majority of their gifts—gifts which they received not for themselves only, but also for others. When these men contemplate their own spiritual advantages and do not consider anyone else, they lose these good because they desire to keep them to themselves. Certainly, the Truth [Jesus] spoke of this to the disciples: “A city set upon a mountain cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a candle and place it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick so that it may shine for everyone who is in the house” [Mt 5:14–15]. Hence, he said to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And when Simon responded at once that he loved him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep” [Jn 21:15–17]. If therefore, the care of feeding is a testament to loving, then he who abounds in virtues but refuses to feed the flock of God is found guilty of having no love for the supreme Shepherd….
…And so there are those, as we have said, who are enriched by many gifts; and because they prefer contemplative study, they decline to make themselves useful by preaching to their neighbors, and preferring the mystery of stillness they take refuge in the solitude of [spiritual] investigations
. If they are judged strictly by their conduct, they are undoubtedly guilty for the proportion of their abilities that they applied to public service. For indeed, what is the disposition of mind when one could be distinguished by assisting his neighbors but prefers his own [stillness] to the assistance of others, when, in fact, the only-begotten of the supreme Father came forth from the bosom of the Father into our midst so that he might benefit the many? [PR, I.5]

[1] St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (tr. George Demacopoulos; Popular Patristics Series 34; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007).

[2] Gregory the Theologian, Apology for his Flight to Pontus, Or 2.

Pastor-Theologian: Will the Job Market Drive PhD Graduates into the Pulpit?

While brewing a second cup of coffee to keep alert in my Greek readings this morning, I found Chris Spinks’ post “Avoid a PhD?” His reflections were stimulated by Anthony LeDonne’s most recent attempt to dissuade prospective PhD candidates from pursuing their vocational dreams (LeDonne offers such discouragement on a monthly basis).

The gist of the matter is that those of us in the throes of doctoral work are loading ourselves with ungodly gobs of debt to be qualified for jobs that simply do not exist. Universities are raising tuition and increasing enrollment, but theology and religious studies professors are among the least paid across all disciplines. More and more academic institutions are taking advantage of “adjunct” professors who teach courses for very modest stipends and for whom the institutions provide nothing in terms of healthcare or other benefits.

Spinks (aptly) summarizes the advice of one commenter on LeDonne’s post in this way: “If you are not independently wealthy, or if you don’t have the pedigree to get an advanced degree in the humanities paid for, then please leave these degrees to those who can afford them.” But Spinks is concerned about the fallout, that “advanced degrees in the humanities become attainable only by the privileged.” He goes on to suggest that “if these less fortunate folks avoid all of this [financial/vocational] mess (not an unwise decision, I’ll grant), we will end up with privileged people educating other privileged people. That would be a shame.”

I am certainly among the (partially insane) unprivileged who are taking on hordes of debt to study the Bible at the doctoral level (though, admittedly, just the fact that I qualify for a student loan plan and can even dream about a PhD evidences a hefty degree of privilege). To be honest, I would issue the same advice as LeDonne, while hoping with Spinks that some less-than-privileged folks will end up teaching Scripture and theology in our seminaries and Religion Departments. I could never recommend this vocational path to anyone without massive financial backing—my regrets are rather acute right now; but again, theology should not be the domain only of the financially backed.

Though I see no solution to the debt-problem, here is one silver lining that may well be at play: not finding a job in the academy, some Christians may be redirected from the academic lectern to the ecclesial pulpit. Perhaps the job market and the wider culture’s disinterest in theology will have the effect of proliferating pastor-theologians throughout the church.

Obviously there are drawbacks here. For one, ministry is a calling and the pastoral office is not well-served if filled by a disgruntled academic whose dreams in the academy have been dashed by an economic recession. Secondly, the sort of training one gets as a PhD candidate is not necessarily conducive for promoting the sort of theological and biblical acuity required in ministerial labors.

But “calling” is often a matter of redirection, isn’t it? What some people might retrospectively call “divine calling,” might be understood at first as a “divine cornering or redirecting!” Saul of Tarsus, for instance, never envisioned how God would put his intensive academic training to use. His vocation as an apostle arose out of the ashes of a Christ-exploded vocational dream.

As for the sort of academic training involved in the PhD… well, a lot of it is simply unhelpful in a church context, sadly. But the greatest benefit of doctoral work in theology and Bible may well be the skill of reading hard texts and the discipline of thinking about them with nuance and care. And we could certainly use the fruit of those skills and disciplines in our pulpits today.

Theoretically, Christians working on PhDs are already plying their craft to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church. When the doors of the ivory towers are barred shut during the job hunt, will they turn to pulpits and pews?

That begs another question: will the pews and chapel doors be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars?

Hmmm…

 

 

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New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

In spite of the horrific costs of postgraduate study in the UK, I am so pleased that Durham is where I have ended up.  I am biased, of course.  But bias might actually be a criterion for truthfulness—sometimes the only accurate portrayals are not the “objective” views from outsiders, but the subjective view from insiders.

(On that statement one could wax on and on with an exciting theology of hermeneutics, by the way— biased insiders are, for the most part, the “implied readers” of Scripture).

The strengths of Durham’s Dept. of Theology are widely recognized.  From an insider’s perspective, there are some less known elements at play that increase my thankfulness for being here.

For one, there is a sincere and energetic agenda of strengthening the academic skills of us postgrads.  Some serious thinking and evaluation is at work as faculty members wonder how they can make us better scholars and address our potential weaknesses.  This agenda is not enacted in a heavy-handed way.  Instead, the faculty are sacrificially making themselves more available in an array of opportunities which are simply there should we choose to take advantage of the offerings.

Here are examples.  Our NT Seminar meets not fortnightly (every other week) like most in the UK, but weekly.  And Prof. Francis Watson (the seminar convener and my supervisor) has added a skills development dimension.  Every other week we have paper presentations (the standard fare of postgraduate seminars in the UK), but on the alternative weeks there are training sessions in reading primary texts, open only to postgrads and faculty.  This means that every other week we NT doctoral and masters students are reading ancient texts with expert ancient-text-readers.  For this term (Michaelmas), our training sessions are dedicated to textual criticism.  In effect, we will have experienced something akin to a doctoral level seminar on text-critical reading of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to the NT seminar, an impressive host of language reading groups are on offer.  Our faculty have quite a breadth in linguistic competencies, and they are making themselves available so that we can choose to meet them in small groups to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, French, etc.

Also worth mentioning is the new Integrated PhD program, just initiated.  The standard US PhD program is 4-5 years with heavy emphases on doctoral level coursework and language study built into them.  The 3-year UK program, on the other hand, expects the competencies gained from language study and coursework to be developed before entering doctoral level research.

Times are changing, so that expectation has proven to be a bit too optimistic.  Many of us begin with an array of linguistic and research weaknesses, a situation that has at times drawn criticism from Americans who have managed to get one of the rare PhD slots in the elite US schools.  Durham is addressing these perceived weaknesses with vigor.  And this new integrated PhD program (4 years) allows an extra year of work on the front end of doctoral research so that these potential areas of scholarly weakness can be mitigated.

Below is the schedule for this term’s NT Seminar.  I’m glad I have a seat at the conference table.

 

8 October | Prof Walter Moberly, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility”

*15 October | Prof Francis Watson, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (1): Matthew [selected passages]”

22 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (University of Berne), “John and the Religious Philosophy of his Time”

23 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, “Plutarch’s Religious Philosophy and the New Testament” (DCC Seminar Room, 1.30-3.00)

*29 October | Prof John Barclay, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (2) Luke”

5 November | Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), “Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination”

*12 November Dr Lutz Doering, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (3): John”

19 November | NO SEMINAR

26 November | tba

*3 December | Dr Jane Heath, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (4): Acts”

10 December | Prof Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh), “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins”

Hadrians Wall

Imagination & Biblical Scholarship

Since living in England, my family and I have had our imaginative capacities expanded when it comes to reflecting on history.  Bounding on castle grounds and clambering hillsides once ascended by Viking invaders or defended from Picts by Roman soliders… these multi-sensory experiences provide a landscape / cityscape / castle-scape for imagining the historical events that transpired so long ago.

Using the  imagination might seem too much like a flight of fancy when it comes to so sophisticated a discipline as biblical scholarship.  But in fact, we are always using our imaginations.  The shreds of papyrus picked up in the sands, the torn pages of faded codices, the cracked sculptures discovered under the earth in modern day Turkey, the crumbling mortar in the remaining temples—these are textual and material artifacts by which we imaginatively construct the world of the Old and New Testaments.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans when the church was still young and just beginning to flourish in the Empire.  My kids run alongside it sometimes, wielding plastic versions of swords or shields fashioned from the prototypes of actual weapons pulled out of bogs or found corroding in the dirt.  Those dear little children are role-playing, vividly spying their enemies on the horizon and fortifying their pretend defenses.  This is imaginative play.  They are mentally imaging a scene constructed in their minds from the ruins and remains of bygone events and peoples.

Professionally trained and long-tenured scholars do the same thing every day (though perhaps less playfully).  To really understand the biblical text, one must try to taste the dirt and smell the smells, to feel the grit and hear the banter in the markets.  Fanciful work?  Yes, at times.  But the imagination can be a powerful ally aiding our retrospective investigations of the past.

Now, sometimes biblical scholarship gets imaginative in ways even my kids would deem irresponsible.  Like stretching the imagination to say that clearly the Jesus of the Gospels was no more than an impoverished cynic-wanderer who had some pithy things to say.  Like offering a multi-year account of the history of some community purportedly responsible for one of the Gospel texts (for which there is little by way of evidence, textual or material).

Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, I suppose… even if we would never want to admit that we are doing something as “childish” as thinking imaginatively.

In spite of the fanciful mishaps, we need not disparage the imagination as a tool of our trade.   Running along Hadrian’s Wall with my kids and deflecting sailing “arrows” with my “shield” might be another element of my training as a PhD student.

Imagine that.

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On NOT being a Minister

It is Sunday morning, and I have no sermon to preach and no Bible Study to prepare.  I will attend church, but I will not be expected to serve Communion or set up mid-week pastoral appointments.  I have no mailbox to check in the church office.  I have nothing to print out, no copies to make.

I am a layperson.

By virtue of moving to England for the PhD, I find myself no longer working in the capacity of a minister.  Setting out on this new academic vocation is in no way a departure from ministry, in my view.  I have not chosen doctoral work because I wish to be unshackled from churchly annoyances and pastoral messes.  I delayed my entry into a PhD program by taking a 3-year pastoral post right at the time I was about to begin the same program in 2008.

But the reality is that I am not pastoring right now, for the first time in 9 years.

I had hoped to find a part-time ministry post here in England, but Durham’s Department of Theology reasonably expects its full-time students to be full-time students.  And no such post emerged when we were searching all last summer (though one did for my wife).

I have done quite a bit of preaching in my first year here in Durham, but I no longer bear the enormous pastoral burdens that have characterized my vocational life for most of the previous decade.

I miss it.  And yet I am so grateful for the break.

I realized several months into life here in England that I was viewing myself as a minister without a ministry post.  For the most part, I still consider myself a pastor.  So I have wondered—am I clinging to some occupational identity for the sake of feeling personally significant?  Or is “minister” who I am by virtue of divine call?  Either way, I cannot answer that awkward question, “What do you do?” with “I pastor or I minister.”  In this stage of my life, I study… and I do it full-time.

The weight of pastoral ministry can be absolutely crushing.  Another good descriptor is “suffocating.”  There are the painful burdens of parishioners one must bear.  There are the disillusioning secrets one discovers every week.  And uglier than these weights are the pressures one feels to grow the church, to expand the ministry, to increase the numbers.  These “ugly pressures” are the sort that we minister-types like to think we are above or immune to.  In every ministry post I have held, these “ugly pressures” have haunted every meeting, every sermon, every Bible study preparation.  I have hated them and fought tooth and nail to resist them and entrust the growth/size/numbers to God.  But they have always been there, whether within or without.  These pressures are unfortunate realities.

But not for me.  Not right now.

Today, my heaviest burdens are 1) the financial costs of tuition and life in the UK, 2) German, 3) Hebrew, 4) the secondary literature on John’s Gospel, 5) the work of writing a guild-worthy doctoral thesis, 6) the work of writing a theology of media.

Bearing the burden of someone’s disintegrating marriage seems much more noble than bearing the weight of memorizing German vocab or Hebrew verb paradigms.  But the struggle of many a theology student and seminarian is the struggle of faithfulness in small, tedious labors that can discipline us for weightier assignments.  By entering a doctoral program, I have determined that German vocab and Hebrew paradigms are non-negotiable for my vocational work as a minister.  As impractical as they seem to be at first glance, they open up new worlds for the minister of the Gospel—Hebrew more than German, but there are times when it would be nice to get into Barth or Thielicke or Bonhoeffer on their own linguistic grounds.

Will I “return” to ministry after the doctoral program?  Will I chose a professorship over a pastorate, a classroom over a chapel?

I have decided at this point to refuse bifurcating church and seminary and ministry from the discipline of theology.  The vocational fork up ahead of me between pastoring and teaching has loomed almost ominously, because I cannot envision serving in a church post that removes me from serious theological study, nor can I envision working as a professor in a way that compromises my work as a minister.  Assuming someone offers me a job in a couple of years, I will have to choose.

But I am blurring the vocational lines on purpose.

For now, I have an excellent opportunity to learn to be a devoted layperson.  I have the unique privilege of serving the church as a minister without an official title.  Pastoring has helped me learn so much about lay ministry.  Ministers know well how church members can strengthen the church’s ministry  through their volunteer devotions.  Now, I am going to let lay ministry teach me how to better serve as a pastor.  Because sometimes, the folks in the pews are the most erudite professors for that lonely, disgruntled person in the pulpit.

 

 

PhD, 1-yr Review: What I do when I clock in…

 

Now that I have written about the spiritual and existential crises of living in the UK as a PhD student with a wife and four kids, I am turning my attention to the sort of work I am up to.

There is the possibility that what follows might dull you….

Languages

My greatest academic insecurities are linguistic.  Hebrew and German, particularly.

It is obvious why Hebrew would be important.  Less so German.  Competency in the biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew) is like competency in market trends for the stockbroker, in biology for the doctor, in hammering for the carpenter.  My Greek has been steadily improving since I had to face Joel Marcus everyday at Duke some years back, asking me to read portions of Mark’s Gospel in Greek aloud in class (when he was finishing up a commentary on the Gospel of Mark), then asking grammatical questions after I translated (“what use of the subjunctive is this?”  “Why is that participle in the genitive?”

A New Testament scholar has to be proficient in the Old Testament, too, which requires Hebrew.  And since the NT writers worked primarily with the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), there is much more Greek to learn than what one finds between Matthew and Revelation.

On a “normal” day, I try to devote an hour and a half to studying a Hebrew textbook after reading portions of the NT in Greek.

As for German….  Well, biblical studies is an international discipline, of course, and the classic understanding of a scholar is that she is multilingual, at least when it comes to reading.  Tomes and tomes of theological work has been produced out of Deutschland.  And new articles come out everyday by German scholars.  So reading competence is essential, not only for keeping abreast of what is going on in one’s field, but for drawing from the vast history of research in biblical studies, much of which has been done in places like Tübingen, Heidelberg, Marburg, and Göttingen.

My German has improved since I came to Durham, but the vocabulary is so vast that I can hardly make it through a sentence without having to look up at least a few words. I rarely use a German grammar.  Mainly I am just reading and translating, reading and translating, pushing, shoving, plowing through the syntax and vocab.

 

Primary Lit

“Primary literature” in NT research refers to the actual texts from the Greco-Roman world that inform the discipline.  This includes the enormous body of literature produce out of Early Judaism.  It includes the vast writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo (both rough contemporaries of the Christian church’s initial generation).  My focus this year has been on the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest texts written by Christians just after the New Testament documents were penned.  Though he is writing a few hundred years later, I am currently reading Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History—this work is probably our best access to early Christianity, even if Eusebius himself cannot be regarded as the best theologian or the best historian.

 

Secondary Lit

“Secondary literature” refers to the scholarly writings produced in recent decades/centuries in one’s academic field.  I am working in John’s Gospel, and Johannine studies is notorious for its massive corpus of secondary lit.  There is just so, so much to read.  So much.  I have concentrated on literary and theological approaches to John, as well as those works which take an interest in Johannine ecclesiology (which is my topic of focus).

 

Writing

Then there is the discipline of writing.  The British PhD is all about writing a top-notch “thesis.”  There are no other metrics—no grades, no language exams, no competency tests.  Just the thesis.  And it had better be good.  At the end of a workday, the doctoral student over here in the UK checks her word count.  We need words on those Word documents staring from the screen.

At the beginning of each term I know what I have to produce in terms of writing.  So I begin the term devoting the 1st half of the day to language work, then the afternoons to reading, reading, reading.  But about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the term, the demand to have something written enforces a new routine.  So I end up spending almost every hour of the day in writing mode, but this might mean that I get a paragraph in.  And only a paragraph.  Because as I write I normally have to re-read a lot of what I have worked through in the 1st part of the term, as well as read lots more.  To write in interaction with other scholars requires such precision.  I have had to read chapters or articles by Bultmann and Käsemann over and over.

 

Supervision and the NT Seminar

I meet fairly often with my supervisor.  Those discussions have been milepost-moments.  The rudder gets tweaked, the arguments get tested, new ideas are suggested, oversized aspirations are cut down, undervalued points are elevated.  I also attend a weekly seminar where other postgrads meet with the NT faculty around a paper presentation and discussion.

 

I absolutely love what I am doing.  But my mind is stretched and yanked and exercised every day. Next, I will be writing on my reading of the Bible—how is it different reading Scripture as a NT PhD student as opposed to a pastor?  And how do I read in general—skimming, scanning, long-form, or in disrupted piecemeal?  I can’t think of much else one would be eager to read about than my reading habits….